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Old Md. Mansion Gets A Face Lift

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SNOW HILL , Md. (AP) — The Gov. Walter Smith House is framed by a canopy of budding trees, accented by the soft ivory colored pedals of dogwood, daffodils, azaleas and the tender, deep-green lushness that is mid-spring.

The Queen Anne-styled mansion blends well with the freshness of the season. Lots of work during the past seven years by owners Bill Hatala and Kemp Wills has given the landmark house pizzazz and class.

The two purchased the house in April 2004 and have added their contributions to saving it. Hatala and Wills are both involved in aspects of the real estate industry and are able to work at home in a place one author described as “… a storybook kind of home, the kind of house of happy days and wondrous dreams.”

Even when Smith built the house in 1889, it was the stuff of Snow Hill legend, being billed as a “palatial residence,” and the “handsomest residence on the Eastern Shore.” The eight large stained glass windows give the interior a pleasing visual personality.

A “palatial residence” comes with plenty of space and extras. Consider the sheer size of the all-wood house.

“I think we have 7,500 square feet including the finished attic,” Hatala said, “but that doesn’t include the 2,500-square-foot basement.”

Then, too, there’s the 1,200-square-foot porch, which has to be maintained and kept clean, just like any room in the house.

Ceiling heights range from 12, 10, and 8 feet in the 20-room mansion, with four full baths and two half-baths. Some 19 windows are 8-feet tall and 3 feet wide. There are 11 fireplaces.

Fortunately, the high-quality slate used on the roofing needed little attention and is holding its own.

“It’s supposed to have a 300-year-plus service life,” Wills said.

Hatala said they had painters scrap and repaint the exterior and refurbish 40 pairs of shutters.

All in all, it’s a lot of house.

Is it too much house for two guys?

“Some days we realize keeping it up is a lot of work, but it can be fun,” Wills said. “Now, we don’t use all this space, but I laugh about it when I tell people that our porch is larger than the apartment I was renting.

“You don’t get to buy half this house, you have to buy it all. They weren’t selling shares,” he added with laughter.

There have been some neat discoveries, like the finding of pieces of a fire back and fireplace surround tiles in the basement, and exposing a cast iron devil’s face, complete with horns, at the rear of a fireplace after being sealed for at least 40 years.

The two also were doing work in the dining room when one of two built-in, decorative oak corner cupboards had to be removed, revealing what is believed to be samples of the original 1889 decorative wallpaper. The several wide strips are unique as period papers seldom survive.

As has been the custom with every sale of the house since Smith’s time, a number of original oak furnishings were conveyed with the house. A substantial oak hall tree in the hall makes a statement, along with a 10-foot-long, 5-foot-wide oak dining table and 10 chairs. A sideboard, library table, circular table and also of carved oak, complements the matching furniture and several cupboards.

A set of carved oak chairs in the breakfast room were made by the late master boat builder, Jim Richardson of Dorchester County, and came to the two owners through Richardson’s sister.

Hatala and Wills also have the original blueprints to the house, themselves works of the architect’s art.

While it’s a historical landmark under their care as stewards, the two men also have made the house a home, with comfortable, inviting furnishings and a blend of decorative moods. It is definitely not a museum, and the whole house is to be lived in. The men have imparted their own design tastes to elements of the house and respect the heritage that comes with the place. That they incorporated the ornately carved dining room furniture in the makeover of the room reflects their concern for the integrity of the pieces.

“We are stewards of the house. Is this my favorite type of furniture? No. Is this exactly what I would have selected for this room? No. But you can’t fight it. This is what was here and this is what is here,” Wills said. “You have to ‘celebrate’ the pieces, show them off and work with them. This is what the governor had and there is no right or wrong, you just have to respect it.”

Now, this place is home.

The two left the Washington-area and thought, as Wills said, they would have a laid back Eastern Shore lifestyle.

Not so.

“It’s more than what we expected, it’s better than we expected,” he said. “We didn’t come here thinking this is where Norman Rockwell lived or Mayberry. Yet, the town has been a pleasant surprise. The people here have been great. There’s a lot of social events here, and I wish now we had some down time. This isn’t the ‘sleepy little town’ I thought it was going to be,” Wills said, laughing. “There’s a distraction every day at 4:30 p.m., people have us over for dinner, cocktail hours, events in town. Neighbors greet us on the street and talk. You think you are going to mail a letter in two minutes and it ends up being a 30-minute adventure. Sometimes we want the phone to stop ringing, the doorbell not to ring.”

“People here are so much friendlier than they are in the city,” Hatala said.

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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